What is the term for the condition of not being able to read, write, or even speak a particular language, but only being able to understand the auditory form of a language. For example, a boy could only understand Chinese in auditory form, but he replies to his parents in English.

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    If the boy can understand Chinese in auditory form, he will be able to speak Chinese at some level too, even though he prefers speaking English because he's better at that. The better he is at hearing/understanding, the better he will be able to speak.
    – Robbert
    Sep 21, 2014 at 12:46
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    I'm not sure if there's a single most used term for this specific level of proficiency, but I think it classifies as elementary proficiency (IRL scale level 1). There are numerous proficiency scales though.
    – Robbert
    Sep 21, 2014 at 12:47
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    Auditorily proficient?
    – bib
    Sep 21, 2014 at 12:48
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    @Robbert Understanding a language and speaking it are two quite distinct mental processes, and they each require training. If someone has listened to a language non-natively for most of his life, but has never been encouraged to speak it and never tried, he might well be almost entirely unable to put together a sentence in that language, despite understanding nearly everything said to him. This is also a common stage in language learners; for example, when I moved to China, I had heard enough Mandarin to understand it fairly well, but I could barely stutter out even basic sentences myself. Sep 21, 2014 at 13:51
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    Illiterate mute
    – pazzo
    Sep 21, 2014 at 16:06

1 Answer 1


If a person can understand verbal communication in a language but can neither read nor write, he would be considered illiterate in that language.

Many people who begin to study a language find understanding verbal communication easier than speaking it. At first, speaking requires retrieving words from memory.

  • 4
    Illiterate would be when you can’t read or write a language. It has nothing to do with your ability to speak the language. Sep 21, 2014 at 13:48
  • @JanusBahsJacquet But the term illiterate has far too much of a pejorative sense to be used in an instance such as this. I would not dream of saying, for example 'Professor Jacquet (who happens to speak and write 23 languages) is illiterate in the language of the north-west Amazonian Indians.
    – WS2
    Sep 21, 2014 at 19:56
  • @WS2 That is true as well. (And I’d love to meet this Professor Jacquet—I didn’t know I had such prodigious namesakes!) Sep 21, 2014 at 20:39
  • Gary's Student is making the distinction between comprehension of spoken language, and being able to expressively speak. That is a normal stage of child development. Comprehension is usually ahead of expression....There are societies where most adults are illiterate, so the context may explain if that use is pejorative.
    – Theresa
    Oct 5, 2014 at 1:06

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